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The year I got organized: a personal story of triumph over clutter.

I have a little magnetic sign on my refrigerator that claims, “Organized people are just too lazy to look for things.” There is more than a little truth to that. I am definitely too lazy to look for things, and that’s what spurred me on to become as organized as possible. I find that looking for things is frustrating, stressful, a time waster – and definitely not good for inpatient people like me who have high blood pressure.

I also have learned that the fewer things I have, the easier it is to organize them – and of the less time I waste retrieving them. It’s fun to practice common sense. Do I really need nine pairs of shoes, four winter jackets, seven hats, four scarves, and so on filling the hall closet?

I know everyone’s situation must be different, but unless you’re a centipede, how could you possibly need more than four pairs of shoes? I cut the number in half for the hats and scarves since I only have one neck and one head. I allowed myself two winter jackets because the closet started looking bare

I can’t tell you how many pairs of shirts and slacks were crammed into the two bedroom closets – mainly because I kept losing count somewhere in the 30s. And I didn’t even attempt to count the underwear and socks. My mother would have been proud of me. I could wear a clean set every hour for a month in case I had to be rushed to the hospital – and still not need to do laundry.

It wasn’t easy to get rid of a lot of the stuff. Over half of the 30 odd pairs of slacks would no longer fit; but I still planned to lose weight even though I hadn’t lost any weight in the last 48 years. Quite the opposite. Sometimes you have to give your brain piece of your mind because it can be stubborn. I finally convinced it that if I ever lost weight I deserved the reward of a new wardrobe. Subconsciously I knew I would never have to deliver on that promise.  Once you’re on a roll, it becomes motivational. I even got rid of the tuxedo I borrowed from someone for the school prom back in 1953. I never could track him down and he probably went to an early grave wondering who had borrowed his tux.

I was further motivated when I became a regular hero in a small Mexican village that I visited several times a year. On each trip I would bring down a suitcase full of old clothes. The local “thrift shop” also benefitted and I started feeling really good about myself.

By the time I got to the kitchen, nothing could stop me. 62 glasses, 24 pots and pans – including in an egg poacher that never saw an egg in its life, a cast iron frying pan that I couldn’t lift let alone use, and hundreds of plastic bags stuffed into plastic bags – all went to a worthy cause. The 40-odd cottage cheese containers that I had carefully washed and were now still nestled inside one another on a top shelf out of reach went to the recycle bin.

Perhaps I went too far when I got rid of the one spare set of bedsheets and pillowcases; but I found I never used them. I wash the one set and return it to its rightful place on my bed. Sure, it will wear out sooner; but at least I won’t. I can always replace them with a new set when they wear thin.

I find that getting rid of stuff becomes a lifestyle. It’s a never ending; because people keep buying me things. So for every item I receive, I get rid of something less attractive – with the knowledge that it brings a joy to someone else.

I won’t bore you with further details of my assault on superfluous stuff. I’m sure you get the idea. I found it to be a necessary first step in getting organized. I’ll talk a little about my organizing experiences in my next blog article.

 

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Let me tell you about the birds and the trees

Office greenery

I would love to be able to say that everything I know about healthy living I learned from nature. But I can’t. It was only after I slowed down enough in my early eighties to actually pay attention to the environment in which we live that I even noticed the marvel of nature.

I never knew the trees could survive for thousands of years or birds could hide food in thousands of places and remember where they stashed each grain. I didn’t know that plants act as vacuum cleaners sucking toxins from the air or that they appear green because of chlorophyll cannot use that part of the colour spectrum and reflects it back unused.

Reading such books as The Hidden life of trees, Your brain on nature, Wild or The genius birds has given me a whole new perspective on life. Take trees for example. If you want to survive to a ripe old age you might take a lesson from them. One of the oldest trees on earth, according to Tim Flannery, who wrote the forward to the “trees” book, is a 9500 year old spruce tree in Sweden. That’s a little extreme; but trees tend to survive for reasons that could be familiar to some of us.

First, they tend to live at a slower pace, with electric impulses travelling through their roots (one of the ways and they communicate with other trees) at only one third of an inch per second. Other functions are equally slow. They seem oblivious to our digital age of speed.

Trees are also community minded, caring for one another, thriving on relationships with other trees in the forest, and having stunted growth and shorter lifespans if isolated in a field or transplanted to a garden. They show concern for other trees and for future generations, passing on life-giving sugar and nutrients by way of their roots to other trees in trouble. They have even been known to nourish the stump of a felled tree for centuries after it had been cut down. Do we have such compassion?

Trees also communicate with one another through senses of smell and taste. For example, if a giraffe starts eating the leaves an African Acacia, the tree can release a chemical that warns other trees in the vicinity of the attack, who then in turn produce toxic chemicals so their leaves are no longer attractive to the animals.

Is it surprising that research shows that strong relationships can lengthen our lives, boost our immune system and cut the risk of depression? One study actually revealed that those who thrived into old age were ones who figured out how to love and be loved. People with active social lives were 50% less likely to die of any cause than their non-social counterparts, and it was found that the more social connections you have, the greater your ability to fight infection. The more time spent with friends was also associated with higher scores on memory tests.

Just like trees in isolation, people who work in isolation do not perform at optimum level. As Matthew Lieberman claimed in his book, Social: why our brains are wired to connect, research shows that our brains are wired to connect with other people. And just like the trees who share their life’s energy with less fortunate companions, so humans who volunteer, donate or give to others, lead happier, healthier and more successful lives.

For example, scientists tracked 2025 Californians aged 55 and older for five years and found that those who volunteered for two or more organizations were 63% less likely to die during the study than those who didn’t volunteer. And those who volunteered for only one organization lowered their mortality rate by 26%.

We have a lot more in common with trees, birds and animals than we may think. We all thrive on sunlight and fresh air and water, but not pollution. We are all created to develop relationships with one another, to help, respect, love and care for one, and to live together in harmony, and not in isolation. And we are not designed to live at warp speed.

Since moving to the country several months ago, and experiencing chipmunks eating from my hand, and woodpeckers, mourning doves and chickadees waiting patiently for me to replenish the birdfeeders, it gave me a new perspective on life and the management of time. Like the trees, the birds seem to be in no hurry. And why should they be? Should we live at the pace we do? The faster we go, the faster life seems to go. Slow down and enjoy the ride.

My new appreciation for the environment prompted my latest ebook, The impact of working environment on personal productivity, soon to be published by Bookboon.com. And it has also confirmed that we should be our environment’s friend, not its predator.

This involves not only the earth we walk on and the massive seas, and the blue skies above us, and the air we breathe; but all living creatures who share it with us, including the grass, and the plants, and yes, the trees.

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The tortoise and the hare – more than just a fable?

High-touch

Balancing high-tech and high-touch.

Research shows that things left undone cause stress. And an expanding to do list, which never seems to empty, is a constant reminder of all the things left undone – important or otherwise. This is true whether it is a hardcopy or electronic list.

If we had only today’s work to contend with – and had closure at the end of each day – we wouldn’t experience the anxiety that so many people are experiencing. This is especially true in today’s environment where we seem to have an endless series of things to do.

To add to our woes, prioritizing is more difficult, since priorities often change on a daily basis. It’s virtually impossible to list things in order of priority and have them stay that way.

One executive mentioned online that he had solved this problem by switching back to something he had used as a child – a pen and notepad. He felt it gave him more control than the various apps he had tried. And he can jot down the things he has to do on a daily basis.

He is not the only one who feels more comfortable and more in control using paper. The Caveman Principle, as explained by Michio Kaku, professor of theoretical physics at the City College and City University of New York, says that given a choice between high-tech and high-touch, we opt for high-touch every time. For example, would you rather see a celebrity performer sing at a concert or watch a DVD of the same performance? Or how about a live sporting even vs. a re-run on TV?

Balancing high-tech with high- touch can strengthen our brain-based “executive skills, and technology writer Danny O’Brien, who interviewed top achievers, found one thing in common that may account for their increased productivity. They all used some sort low-tech tool, such as a written “To Do” list or a plain paper pad.

Writing down your “to do” list on paper frees up working memory, allows time to evaluate their importance, and provides a motivational sense of accomplishment as your cross off each item.

Mikael Cho, cofounder of Crew, said in an article on the Internet, “The separation from the digital space (where I do most of my work) to the physical, helped me feel less overwhelmed.”

Physically writing things down also increases your focus on what you are doing at the time, avoids mental multitasking, and helps you to make a better decisions when selecting the priorities for each day.

Here’s an example that I noted in Thomas Friedman’s latest (2016) book, Thank you for being late. Eric Teller, CEO of Google’s X research and development lab, could not be more high-tech. It seems to be in his genes. His paternal grandfather designed the hydrogen bomb and his maternal grandfather, an economist, won a Nobel Prize. Yet, when explaining Moore’s law and the accelerating rate of change of science and technology, “Teller began by taking out a small yellow 3M notepad” and “drew a graph with the Y axis labeled ‘rate of change’ and the X axis labeled ‘time.’…..”

You could hardly call a 3M notepad high-tech, and yet it was definitely more convenient and faster than whipping out his iPhone and activating a graph app. And probably more effective in getting his point across.

Don’t be embarrassed if you still use a paper planner or scratch pad or sticky notes. Paper has not become obsolete. In fact we recently designed a “scratch pad on steroids” that allows you to quickly jot down ideas, notes from emails or phone calls, record your day’s priorities and To Do’s make notes and reminders and so on. It’s called a “Daily Priority Pad,” comes in two sizes, and you can check it out at our website, www.taylorintime.com.

There’s another reason we should be balancing high-tech with high-touch. It became obvious when reading The Glass cage: automation and us, (2014) by Nicholas Carr. Evidently on January 4, 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration released a one-page safety alert for operators to all U.S. airlines and other commercial air carriers encouraging operators to promote manual flight operations when appropriate. To quote from Carr’s book: “The FAA had collected evidence, from crash investigations, incident reports, and cockpit studies, indicating that pilots had become too dependent on autopilots and other computerized systems. Overuse of flight automation, the agency warned, could ‘lead to degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state.’ It could, in blunter terms, put a plane and its passengers in jeopardy. The alert concluded with a recommendation that airlines, as a matter of operational policy, instruct pilots to spend less time flying on autopilot and more time flying by hand.”

This could apply to all of us. As we rely more and more on technology, will skills such as cursive writing, basic math, problem solving and even creative thinking slowly diminish?

Balancing high-tech with high touch can help strengthen our executive skills, those brain-based skills such as the ability to concentrate, focus and keep things in short-term memory. After all, the goal of technology was to increase productivity, not to eliminate paperwork.

Using a paper planner and writing down my “To Do” list serves to ground me in reality. I can touch it and feel it and see my scheduled projects for the week the moment I open my planner. Writing down an appointment solidifies that meeting in my mind, while dictating it to a handheld device makes little impact, little commitment, and little chance I will even recall it the next morning.

A pen in hand generates focus, attention, commitment, and a “do it now” mindset – something many of us lack. Written down, a name or number stays in working memory longer and has a greater chance of making it into long-term memory for later recall.

Similarly, I prefer to make handwritten notes while on the telephone, write notes on an “Action Sheet” in meetings, and, heaven forbid, even write personal notes on hardcopy birthday cards and send them by snail mail.

There is a place for digital devices. I do own an iPad, an iPhone and a laptop. And like many people I do online banking, use e-transfers, make calls with Skype, shop online, have a PayPal account, participate in social media, and correspond by email. But I also use a paper planner and a hard copy follow-up file system, a telephone log booklet, paper checklists, note pads, sticky notes as well as read hard copy books. Paperwork adds structure to my life.

Because we live in a digital age of speed, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I handwrite all my books and articles before dictating my handwritten material to my computer using voice-activated software. But I quickly regain my self-esteem when I recall the story of the tortoise and the hare. The objective was clearly not to run the fastest, but to win the race.

 

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How to make good decisions

decisions

Slow decision-making wastes time, as do spur-of-the moment decisions, which frequently result in costly and time-consuming mistakes. But the worst thing you can do is to procrastinate on decision-making. Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich, once conducted a survey of successful people and found all of them were decisive. Don’t be afraid of being wrong. We learn from our mistakes; but if we do nothing, we neither accomplish anything nor learn anything.

Delay until you have enough information; but don’t wait until you have all the information. If you have all the information, the course of action becomes a foregone conclusion: no real decision is necessary. Have the courage to make decisions with only 70% to 80% of the facts. When you have mulled over the facts and considered, the alternatives, sleep on it if an immediate decision isn’t required. Spend time in proportion to the importance of the decision. For instance, don’t waste a lot of time discussing the menu for the staff Christmas party. The decision to close down an operation or expand the product line warrants a greater expenditure of that costly commodity call time. Make minor decisions quickly. If the consequence of the decision is not important, it is not worth much of your valuable time. Spend time in proportion to the importance of the decision.

If the decision is yours alone to make, and you seem to get bogged down in the process, and get frustrated by your lack of progress, it’s frequently faster in the long run to leave the problem for a short period of time. Work on some unrelated jobs for a few hours or even a few days and then tackle the problem anew. The change in pace will revitalize your thinking. But delay it only once or you will be tempted to procrastinate.

In some cases it might be better to leave the problem until the next day. Your brain never stops working, and it has been shown that people make better decisions in the morning.

Always make short-term decisions with long-term objectives in mind. Don’t make a band aid decision that solves the immediate problem, but results in time-consuming problems further down the road.

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Are you an effective listener?

listening

Poor communications is one of the top time problems identified by workshop attendees. Much of this could be a simple lack of communications – a failure to share relevant information with those who need to know in order to perform their jobs effectively.

But much of it is a result of poor listening habits on the part of the listener. If you can honestly answer yes to the following five questions, you already qualify as a good listener: Otherwise, you might do well to practice the discipline of effective listening.

  1. In the midst of a busy and noisy plant or office, can you concentrate enough to understand everything that is said to you?
  1. When someone is presenting a lengthy proposal, can you keep your attention focused on the speaker’s ideas instead of letting it wander?
  1. Knowing that you can think about four times as fast as a speaker can talk, do you use the extra time to ponder what is being said?
  1. When listening, can you block out the speaker’s delivery and physical appearance?
  1. If a talk is boring and of little value, do you concentrate on listening for something of value to come?
  1. When the speaker makes disparaging remarks or the talk is boring, can you suppress your emo­tional response enough to hear what is being said?

The onus is on the listener to avoid pre-judging, daydreaming, interrupting, criticizing the speaker’s delivery, reacting to emotional words, or being distracted by the environment.

Effective listening is more difficult today than in the past – due to an increase in multitasking. Most people accept the fact that our brains cannot focus effectively on two things at the same time. Yet we are so busy, our heads swimming with thoughts of things yet to be done, we feel we can half-listen and still get by. Unfortunately this seldom works. The brain simply doesn’t function this way.

As psychotherapist Elaine Smookler suggests in the February, 2017 issue of Mindful magazine, “Listening is really just taking time to experience what we’re hearing at the moment.” Poor listening is a byproduct of poor time management. If something is important enough to listen to, it is important enough to listen to with your full attention.

As a Smookler mentions in her article Are you hearing me? Philosopher Martin Heidegger identified listening as a key to maintaining meaningful relationships with family, friends and colleagues.

Once you accept that listening is a priority, you can decide to fully focus on what the other person is saying. You can do this by periodically summarizing in your mind, in your own words, what is being said, and either confirming or questioning the point of view – all the while deciding what the person is trying to communicate beyond the words. In other words, occupy your mind with thoughts of the conversation so it won’t have any spare time to wander.

Effective listening can be learned. It is an active skill, and as such requires greater mental applica­tion.